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Olav Vassend

So it seems that, at worst, Hume was prejudiced against some groups and defended certain morally atrocious acts on utilitarian grounds. If that's all it takes not to deserve having a building named after you, then I honestly doubt there's a single person in history or alive today who will meet the bar. In fact, my experience is that most of the historical figures who are venerated in the public sphere were deeply flawed in some way or other, usually much more so than Hume. Indeed, Hume was by all accounts a very morally upstanding person in most respects. Maybe the upshot is that we shouldn't honor anyone?

Miles Rind

This and the previous posts of yours to which you linked have been instructive to me. The passage from Beattie shows conclusively that Hume was not being just "a man of his time" in that now-notorious footnote, and the other considerations that you adduce present grave difficulties for the claim that what Hume says therein was peripheral to his thinking and of little influence.

Eric Schliesser

Thank you, Miles. I really appreciate that you took the time to read these other posts, too.

Eric Schliesser

Hi Olav (if I may?), thank you for your comment. People of good will can disagree in good faith about who to honor and why. So, I am not bothered by defenses of Hume Tower that are not mere propaganda (or recycling culture war tropes).
Yet, if it is right, as you claim, that "most of the historical figures who are venerated in the public sphere were deeply flawed in some way or other," perhaps (in light of your 'deeply') we should reflect a bit more critically on our culture's values and past and how we educate/teach about them?

Robert A Gressis

"Yet, if it is right, as you claim, that "most of the historical figures who are venerated in the public sphere were deeply flawed in some way or other," perhaps (in light of your 'deeply') we should reflect a bit more critically on our culture's values and past and how we educate/teach about them?"

Just our own culture's values?

I don't want to misrepresent you, so I'll give the following possibilities:

1. If you're a member of western culture (aka, WC), and every one, or almost every one, of the figures that WC honors is deeply flawed, then you should reflect more critically on WC's values and how you teach them. However, if you're not a member of WC, then it's not true that you should do this for WC, though it may or may not be true that you should do this for your own culture's values and how you teach them.

2. Every culture is such that all, or almost all, of the figures it honors are deeply flawed. Consequently, everyone who is formed by a culture and can reflect on its values should reflect on their own culture's values, especially if they are someone who teaches these values. That said, if you're a member of WC, then you should do this only for WC's values; similarly, if you're a member of Chinese culture (CC), then you should do this only for CC's values, etc.

3. Only WC is such a culture; consequently, though it's true that everyone who is a member of a culture that honors deeply flawed people should reflect on those people's values, the upshot is that only members of WC should do this.

4. Many cultures are like WC; but only the members of WC should reflect deeply on what the dishonorable fact says about them.

5. Everyone is required to reflect on the fact that the people of all cultures who are honored were often deeply flawed people. So, it's OK for me to reflect on deeply flawed, but honored, members of CC, etc.

Near as I can tell, you've only asserted 1. I'm curious about what you think of 2-4.

I should say, I'm writing this from a position of emotional upset. What happened with Hume and Edinburgh really bothers me, so if you want to dismiss me as a troll, you're well within your rights to do so. I'd like to think that I'm someone who is such that he can respond to reason, but you might disagree with that assessment, and such a dismissal might be justifiable.

If you're wondering, "why are you asking these questions? What are you really after?" I'll tell you, as best I can.

I would be surprised if western culture were unusual in the extent to which its honored figures are, by today's (western) standards, deeply flawed. For instance, I am of the view that Mao Zedong was deeply flawed (at best), and yet he's honored in China (if you're skeptical, here's some evidence that that's the case: https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/05/29/why-maoism-still-resonates-china-today/). Consequently, I think many people in western culture are getting the wrong impression of how dishonorable their honored figures were.

So, that's the first issue. The second issue is that I think the standards we're using to justify stripping honors from honored figures are quite novel, and not widely shared. I fully cop to being in error about that. But it seems that people are saying this: "yes, we realize that lots of white people in the west chafe at the fact that prominent whites are being stripped of their honors. Well, so what? These people were evil people, and their evil was not incidental to their legacy, but central to it. This leads to the following principle: if we judge that someone is bad, such that his badness infects the rest of his work, then we should get rid of his honors, regardless of what the majority of people think."

You may object to my phrasing, but that's a quick-and-dirty way of phrasing how *I* see things. If this is right, why should this principle stop only at western borders? Shouldn't we tell the Chinese to stop honoring Mao? Or is there some cultural propriety issue here? And yet, I know that people would think that a westerner telling a Chinese that they should stop honoring Mao would be cultural imperialism. Why doesn't a similar charge register when it's a minority in a country doing the same thing to a majority within a country?

OK, venting over.

John Quiggin

That's fairly damning, Eric. Until now I only knew about the footnote, which seemed more like a failure to think deeply about a peripheral issue than a significant part of Hume's thought

As I expect you know, the case against Locke is even stronger https://jacobinmag.com/2019/03/john-locke-freedom-slavery-united-states

Olav Vassend

Hi Eric. Sure, even as a teenager it struck me as somewhat perverse that a lot of the people who are remembered (and commemorated) as great historical figures are basically people whose main claim to fame is that they led huge wars of aggression and killed tons of innocent people (Alexander the Great? Napoleon? And, by the way, Robert Gressis, the same can certainly be said for famous historical figures from outside the west, e.g. Shaka Zulu, who apparently even has an aquatic theme park named after him in South Africa). Seen in that light, of course, Hume's moral transgressions appear rather tame.

Eric Schliesser

Olav, we disagree that participation in the slave trade and promoting a kind of imperialism is tame from any light. But the question, at hand, is not what you and I think, but rather who to honor at a *university* and why or why not. As I said that is not an easy matter, but that question is made frivolous by comparing that choice to decisions about naming aquatic theme parks or national mythmaking.

Olav Vassend

Eric, I don't disagree that participating in the slave trade is bad in any light, but I didn't think Hume did that. "Promoting a kind of imperialism," on the other hand, does strike me as significantly tamer.

Eric Schliesser

Olav, check out this mentioned in my note: https://www.scotsman.com/news/opinion/columnists/david-hume-was-brilliant-philosopher-also-racist-involved-slavery-dr-felix-waldmann-2915908

Olav Vassend

Thanks for pointing that out to me, Eric.

William Peden

There are definitely multiple arguments against the ertswhile name. One is that it gives the impression that David Hume was honoured for his work by the University of Edinburgh in his lifetime, whereas actually he was excluded from academic employment despite his obvious genius and famously pleasant character, on grounds of religious heterodoxy.

The uncomfortable truth for the university is that, in retrospect, it was a backwater in terms of doing 18th century philosophy, rather than just training future greats. Aberdeen employed Thomas Reid, Glasgow employed Adam Smith and Francis Hutcheson, while Adam Ferguson and David Hume basically flourished outside academia. The only thinker that Edinburgh can really claim is Dugald Stewart, and I suspect that I'm not the only person to have studied a course in Scottish Enlightenment philosophy and yet be unable to name "The Top 5 Greatest Ideas of Dugald Stewart".

Renaming the David Hume Tower reminds people like me, who are proud graduates of the University of Edinburgh, that there is some smoke-and-mirrors in its reputation in philosophy.

Stephen Menn

I am tired of people talking about Hume's "infamous footnote" without talking about the Jamaican writer and teacher that Hume was insulting, without even giving him a name. He was Francis Williams, and he was an interesting person in his own right; he shouldn't be remembered just as the roadkill that Hume happened to run over. See, to start with, Vincent Carretta, "Who was Francis Williams?", Early American Literature 38 (2003), 213-237, easily findable on JStor, and including the chapter of Edward Long's History of Jamaica devoted to Williams, and thus also including a poem of Williams', in Latin elegiac couplets, celebrating the installation of a new governor of Jamaica, which unfortunately seems to be all we still have of Williams' writing. (Long was an obnoxious racist who cites the text in order to criticize or even ridicule it, but we wouldn't have the text if it weren't for him.) Justin Smith, when I was grousing about this to him the other day, pointed me to Williams: thank you Justin. Clearly some people know about Williams (there is a certain amount of literature on him by now); I don't know whether the Hume people have talked about him, figured out Hume's sources of information, etcetera.

Stephen Menn

I see that Popkin talks about Williams in "Hume's Racism Reconsidered"; but with mistakes about Williams (he says that he graduated from Cambridge), and much worse mistakes about Amo. Eric, do you know if Hume scholars have done more with Williams (rather than about whether Hume responded to Beattie) since then? Popkin just complains that Hume ignored being empirically refuted, but there is surely more to say than that. Popkin cites Gates as saying that Williams protested against Hume's insults: I don't know what the evidence is, but that would be interesting.

Aaron V Garrett

Silvia Sebastiani and I mention Williams and Philip Quaque in our piece, but in passing. I completely agree that there should be much more discussion of him (and others). I have been writing a piece on Phillis Wheatley who was famously and similarly dismissed by Jefferson.

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